The Variable Body in History

by Chris Mounsey (Volume editor) Stan Booth (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 294 Pages
Series: Queering Paradigms, Volume 6


The essays in this book explore the different ways the body has been experienced and interpreted in history, from the medieval to the modern period. Challenging the negative perceptions that the term ‘disability’ suggests, the essays together present a mosaic of literary representations of bodies and accounts of real lives lived in their particularity and peculiarity. The book does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather it celebrates the fact that it is not. By presenting a group of individual cases from different periods in history, the collection demonstrates that any overarching way of describing bodies, or unifying description of the experience of the myriad ways of being in a body, is reductive and unhelpful. The variability of each body in its context is our subject.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction: Speaking Forwards in History
  • In/Dis-Ability: A Medievalist’s Perspective
  • The Possibility of an Island: Colonialism, Embodiment and Utopia in Pre-Modern Literature
  • ‘This so low a purpose’: Richard Mulcaster and the Aims of Public Education in Sixteenth-Century England
  • Thersites and Deformity
  • Aphra Behn’s ‘Blind Lady’: Reading Impairment/Impairing Reading
  • Laughing about and Talking about the Idiot in the Eighteenth Century
  • LESS is More: The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Countess of Derby
  • Improper Conjunctions: Scandalous Images and Dangerous Bodies in ‘Crim. Con. Temptations with Prices Affix’d’
  • The Blind Made Happy: Arcs of Reward and Redemption in Early Modern Children’s Texts
  • ‘The awful individuality of suffering’: Disabled Characterization in Dinah Mulock Craik’s Olive and A Noble Life 203
  • Constructing La Goulue: The Queer, the Criminal and the Cancan
  • Epilogue: Variable Bodies, Buddhism and (No-)Selfhood: Towards Dehegemonized Embodiment
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


← viii | 1 →


Introduction: Speaking Forwards in History

In the introduction to my first collection of essays on disability, The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century,1 I explored the output of academic studies of disability in history until 2013, and in the interim I am happy to find over a hundred new publications in the field of disability studies. The same introduction also argued that it was now time for detailed studies of particular impairments and particular impaired people within their historical contexts, and that the time for general statements and theories was past. I was therefore a little saddened when researching for this new introduction that less than a tenth of the hundred outputs of the last two years concerned disability in history. Even David Bolt’s excellent Changing Social Attitudes to Disability,2 which is subtitled ‘Perspectives from historical, cultural, and educational studies’, gives us very little and a very short history. Although the first part of the book is intended to illustrate ‘the fact that, though often neglected, an historical analysis of changing social attitudes toward disability is an important area of study’,3 history is reduced to an account of Darwinism, the changing nineteenth-century attitudes toward tuberculosis, and the Nazi extermination programme.

A more substantial contribution to a longer history of impairment has come from Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood in Recovering Disability in Early Modern England.4 The collection explores representations of disabilities in the early modern period in the same way my own The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century centred on its academic period. ← 1 | 2 → In the book, Hobgood and Houston Wood’s contributors confronted me with theoretical approaches choreographed around Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s idea of ‘the stare’, and Mitchell and Snyder’s ‘narrative prosthesis’, in what a review of the book by Elizabeth Bearden calls a:

… reassessment of medicalized models of disability in favor of … a more inclusive and intersectional model favor[ing] a postmodern and postcolonial worldview.5

I am either being hopelessly old-fashioned, or trying to focus on a different goal, but importing a postmodern and postcolonial worldview to read Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the Book of Common Prayer, revenge tragedy, early modern scientific treatises, ballads and broadsides seems a little odd. This is not to say that this and the essays in Hobgood and Houston Wood’s collection are unreadable or wrong.

I can understand them because I know enough about literary theory and enough about how literature works to read outside my period. But I learned a great deal more from their collection from the essays’ contributions on specific historical information about the representations and experiences of impaired people than from its theoretical framework. It is true that the theoretical framework was intended to help understanding between periods of study, and here am I introducing a collection of essays which spans the medieval period to the early twentieth century. How can its essays hope to make a single point, or talk to one another if they do not hold in common a language of communication across the centuries?

Our academic love affair with periodization can be problematic. In order that we might be able to have meaningful conversations at our conferences and a focus for our publishing strategies we keep to our own periods and rarely if ever read outside our own century. This can become a trap because periodization means we can fail to communicate beyond our ‘own’ century, albeit that our topic itself might be narrow enough to allow for a wider historical base for debate: and the study of impaired people is just such a narrow topic, and I believe that it does not need to hide behind the rhetoric of a methodology in order to make sense. The language of the body, ← 2 | 3 → the body of you or of me, or of any character in any piece of literature is the same language because it terminates upon the body and articulates it, albeit that the body in each case is different. But it must be remembered that each body is the ‘same only different’ from every other.

Thus I would argue that we can go farther than David Bolt or Hobgood and Houston Wood suggest. As important as theoretical study may be, it is important that a history of social attitudes towards impaired people is read as accounts of what was, in the terms deployed in the past, in order that they become a method of bringing the past into the present. Only in this way can cultural history be understood to ‘speak forwards from history’ to teach us now how to live with the same impairments with which people were living in the past. If we impose a modern methodology upon the language of the past we stand a good chance of listening only to an echo of ourselves, rather than to the accounts of the lives of our foremothers and forefathers.

It was just this problem of listening to personal accounts of impairments across history which was highlighted in the symposium ‘Disability History: Voices and Sources’, held at the London Metropolitan Archives on 22 March 2013. One of the papers told a typical story of the loss of the voice of disabled people in history, when the presenter, Phil Samphire ‘had visited a local library in Manchester, and seen an exhibition about his old special school, in which the school’s story was told entirely from the point of view of its governors.’6 A number of projects were highlighted in the same symposium in which the voices of inmates are now beginning to be heard over the records of the nineteenth-century institutions: Earlswood and Normansfield, Bethlem Hospital, and the stately homes transformed into hospitals during World War One. However, apart from one account of a deformed man in the Norman period given by Simon Jarrett, all the voices of the disabled came from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is true that these more recent historical voices are still faint, as Martha Stoddard Holmes argues of the voices of one Victorian group of individuals: ← 3 | 4 →

The question of how people with intellectual disabilities were ‘othered’ – scientifically, linguistically, environmentally/spatially, socially, educationally, and sexually – through texts – including the scientific, the clinical, the educational, and the literary – has been underexamined and underhistoricized.7

David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas and Elizabeth J. Donaldson have gone some of the way to fill in the gap in historicization of nineteenth-century impairment with their collection of essays concerning Charlotte Brontë’s novel The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability,8 which demonstrates that often the voices of the disabled in history are to be found in literary rather than historical texts.

Considering the contributions to the field of disability studies over the past two years, I am more and more convinced that the concentration on histories of impairments after 1784 is due to the fact that the theory of compulsory ableism which underlies much of the current work in disability studies is only comprehensible after that date. As Cornelia Dayton argues about the case of Joseph Gorham, a man with intellectual disabilities in eighteenth-century Cape Cod, ‘… lay opinion remained the most important factor shaping the designation of a person as mentally competent or incompetent.’9 Dayton’s ground-breaking work explores the way in which Joseph Gorham’s mental capacity to make a will was not judged by an idea of compulsory ableism but by ‘social accommodations and interpretive confusions.’

The probate appeal bequeathed to us a thick file containing testimony from twenty witnesses, all men. On one hand, they agreed that Joseph was not a fully active member of the community: he had never followed a trade, and, by family fiat and local consensus, he was not allowed to bargain. On the other, as a result of the parties’ ← 4 | 5 → lawyers scouting for witnesses to provide supporting evidence for their side, the deponents disagreed about the testator’s capacities. Ten men described behaviors of Joseph which seemed to mark him as incompetent to dispose of his property, while ten claimed that, although Gorham was ‘very Different from the Generality of Mankind,’ he possessed sufficient rationality to write a valid will. These testimonies afford us a glimpse into the social accommodations and interpretive confusions that arose around a man whom one observer called ‘the oddest man that I Ever saw.’10

While ten deponents appear to have believed that Gorham had to be at least not ‘odd’ in order to write a will, ten believed he could though he was ‘very Different from the Generality of Mankind.’ That said, I cannot go as far as Dayton’s retro-diagnosing Gorham as autistic. But this is not because I believe that Gorham was impaired in a way specific to Cape Cod in the eighteenth century, but because the language we have of him in the historical records is all we have to go on. Why replace it with other? But then does it become impossible for impaired people to speak forwards from history? Will we fail to understand them as their context was so very different from our own? This is one of the basic questions of historiography, and is one which can and has been answered in a number of ways.

Ann Schmeising gives us a straightforward answer in her reading of Grimm’s Fairy Tales11 in which she focuses on literal disability, which allows her to explore the lived bodily experience of physical impairment. While her book is part of the project of disability studies, and therefore set against compulsory ableism, it challenges the brothers Grimm, who ‘… aspired to restore an organic wholeness to their tales … [with Schmeising’s] own prosthetic goal … to restore disability to their tales by foregrounding it instead of – as has been the case too often in fairy-tale scholarship – reading over it or seeing it as valuable only insofar as it symbolizes something else.’12 The lesson to learn from this approach is that we can and should read people in literature as well as people in history as people with bodies like ours. And furthermore, Schmeising urges us to understand disability not ← 5 | 6 → only as a social or political problem but focusing on the impaired person as having a life worth living and not as someone with a disease to be cured.

It might be argued that there is a problem with working with fairy tales, which being so ingrained into our culture may be in part responsible for the way we think. It is what makes fairy tales so important a locus of literary study. But when we read them are we reading ourselves, because these tales, told to us in whatever version at our cradle, formed the ways in which we now think about ourselves and our bodies? When the lived bodily experience of physical impairment speaks forward from the fairy tale, does it do so unimpeded by a shift in context because the fairy tale is the context of all our childhoods?

When speaking forwards from other less familiar histories and literatures, the impairment remains in its context of understanding and in its own words. This is why I argue against Dayton’s suggestion that Joseph Gorham was autistic since there can be no real certainty in retrospective diagnosis from the indirect historical voices no matter how hard we attend to them, but also why I accept Dayton’s work as ground-breaking since at bottom she is listening out for Joseph among, amid and through the legal documents about him. The difficulty of doing this, as expressed by Dayton’s move towards retro-diagnosis says more about a twenty-first century desire to pigeon-hole ideas in a grid of scientific certainty, than the conclusions that can be drawn from the paucity of historical facts available about impaired people, that come from impaired people. And this might be another reason why so little work has been carried out on their histories farther back than 1784.

I choose 1784 with a wry smile, as it recalls the famous date of 1869 when Westphal first used the term homosexual, and so founded sexuality. 1784 was the date of the foundation of the first blind school in Paris by Valentin Haüy, the beginning of the great incarceration. Thus, it might be used as the date when we lost the views of those such as Phil Samphire, among countless others brought up in institutions, whose stories were told entirely from the point of view of the governors. I have argued elsewhere that this was undoubtedly the case for blind people, due to the fate of the Liverpool Blind School, the first of its kind in Britain, in 1792. The School was dreamed up by Edward Rushton, the blind anti-slavery writer, ← 6 | 7 → newspaper publisher and bookseller, as a friendly society into which all blind people would pay while they were employed so that they could draw a pension when they became unemployed or too old to work. However, when Henry Dannett brought the scheme to fruition it had mutated into a work-house where:

That the employment be such, as gently to engage the mind without fatiguing it, and by diverting the attention of the blind from their unhappy lot, making them less a burden to themselves.13

The ground plan of the School, published nearly twenty-five years after it was founded, shows no classrooms at all. On the ground floor are a ‘Women’s Basket-weaving Room’ and a ‘Men’s Basket-weaving Room’, and on the first, ‘Women’s Looms’ and ‘Men’s Looms’. Although there is a ‘Music Room’, and a number of people are mentioned – former inmates who have become organists and music teachers, presumably from lessons taught at the school – the writer of the pamphlet cannot refrain from hoping that the governors will ‘improve the nature of the establishment … to render it less an ASYLUM, and more approaching a SCHOOL’,14 as Katharine Kittredge tells us later in this collection.

In fact, the Address in Favour of the School for the Blind gives us accounts of the lives of only twenty-five former ‘pupils’ from among the 465 who came from around the whole country to find work in the Liverpool Asylum between 1792 and 1816, weaving baskets and cloth or making whips. Of these sixteen are simple statements that the former ‘pupil’ is now an organist at a named church. The voices of the nine remaining are heard in letters or short pieces written about four of them, and five by the former ‘pupils’ themselves.

These voices are very faint indeed and need to be read carefully. The voices of the impaired before this time need to be read even more carefully as they ‘speak forward in history’, and this is what the essays in this collection ← 7 | 8 → attempt to do, giving accounts of impaired people in an historical sweep from the medieval period to the twentieth century.

What holds together such an historically disparate group of essays is not a common methodology, although all essays eschew the Foucauldian approach to disability studies and the struggle against compulsory able-bodiedness. Instead, each essay begins with either an idea of or about the body (impaired or not) in a particular context, or by exploring a particular body within its historical and cultural context. Common to all essays is the move from the one methodology to the other: from ideas about bodies to bodies themselves. Thus, together the essays demonstrate the reciprocity between ideas about bodies and the physical experiential body, suggesting that the two are both contextually determined, and that neither focus of explanation is, by itself, capable of fully explaining embodiment in its variable forms.

The opening essay is by Irina Metzler. Her essay, ‘In/Dis-Ability: A Medieval Perspective’ begins by explaining that since not all impairments were consistently disabling in all cultures, we need both textual and materialist approaches to the historical study of disability: what she calls the cultural model of disability. Thus, examples in her essay explore St Martin and the iconography of his act of charity, asking to whom should charity be given? Who are the deserving? Which leads to discussions of work and the ability to work, and the manifestation of disability in the first forms of wheeled chairs and those who used them, as well as the choice of guide for blind people.

Adleen Crapo moves the argument forward into the pre-modern period. ‘The Possibility of an Island: Colonialism, Embodiment and Utopia in Pre-Modern Literature’ brings a similar combined argument to the body of Teresa de Cartagena, a deaf woman converted to Christianity who lived in fifteenth-century Spain, through a comparison with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The essay brings idea and body together by combining the idea and experience of having a monstrous body with the desire for a utopia for people with disabled bodies: Caliban’s famous island, and Teresa’s ínsula for her and other disabled thinkers, rendering it a locus amoenus for disabled female creativity. ← 8 | 9 →

Emile Bojesen’s essay explores the origins of the English public school, in particular from the perspective of the variety of boys who entered the system to be unified into civilized members of Queen Elizabeth’s nation. But what the essay demonstrates is that just as the grammar school gave us Shakespeare, Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of Merchant Taylor’s and St Paul’s Schools, who devised the grammar school curriculum, knew and understood that the process of education must necessarily retain the uniqueness in body and mind of its pupils in the diet of both.


VIII, 294
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 294 pp., 4 coloured ill., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Chris Mounsey (Volume editor) Stan Booth (Volume editor)

Chris Mounsey worked for several years in theatre before an accident and four months’ immobility, in which reading was the only possible occupation, led to an academic career. Degrees in philosophy, comparative literature and English from the University of Warwick followed, and a doctorate on Blake founded an interest in the literature of the eighteenth century. Professor Mounsey, who now teaches at the University of Winchester, is author of Christopher Smart: Clown of God and Being the Body of Christ and editor of Presenting Gender, Queer People, Developments in the Histories of Sexualities and The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. Stan Booth is a PhD student at the University of Winchester. He worked for many years as a local government manager advising members of the community of a disadvantaged area of London. Seeing the credit crunch coming and the obvious impact it would have, he returned to learning, undertaking an MSc in Health and Disease and from there re-entered academia. His doctoral project explores the discourse of physical paralysis in the eighteenth century with a cultural studies emphasis that allows scope to explore individuals and to go beyond the notion of the typical and the predicted models.


Title: The Variable Body in History
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
304 pages